Few topics are as important to the world’s population as the future of its food supply, and agricultural production offers tremendous possibilities for bridging the Earth’s transition into a new era with billions more mouths to feed.
Indoor farming will play a key role in meeting these needs, and the technologies these facilities adopt will open up a wealth of capabilities, jobs, and investment opportunities that redesign both urban and agricultural landscapes.
Our new report, “Bringing Digital Intelligence to Indoor Farming,” takes a look at where these chances to innovate will appear and how companies will be able to rise to the occasion and identify ways to realize value.
Below are 10 ways that we and our collaborators at Comet Labs see technology in indoor farming having an impact on our planet. We hope you will follow our ongoing efforts in food sustainability at Orange Silicon Valley and download our full report to see our findings.
1. Enable more cities to eat local
One of indoor agriculture’s greatest advantages is its proximity to the point of consumption for food being grown. As a category, local food sales grew from $1 billion in 2005 to $7 billion in 2014, according to a 2015 Newbean Capital report. As the world’s population continues to grow and become more urban, increased demand for local food is likely to follow.
2. Reduce environmental impact
With 24% of the world’s greenhouse gases currently being produced by agriculture operations, according to the World Resource Institute, there is a very real opportunity to leverage local indoor growing operations to make a dent in damage being done to the environment. Part of the potential lies in the lower volume of fossil fuels required for transportation, but Earth-friendlier alternatives can also be seen in the lower requirements for artificial fertilizers and various chemical inputs that come with indoor systems.
3. Add new and exciting architecture
Innovative growing environments in urban settings have already pushed farmer and companies to rethink how they use space in challenging circumstances. As indoor facilities proliferate, cities will see these operations further enmeshed within their landscapes.
“Architecture, engineering, permitting, regulatory factors and construction are unique challenges that greenhouse growers typically aren’t accustomed to,” Gotham Greens CEO and founder Uraj Puri told Growing Magazine in September. “We’ve taken our experience in greenhouse and environmental design and green building, and have adapted it to urban, specifically rooftop, application.”
4. Turn food farms into data farms
“What you don’t see here are 30,000 different data-point sensors monitoring the environment, the temperature, the nutrients, [and] the lighting,” AeroFarms Chief Marketing Officer Marc Oshima told The New York Times in a tour of his company’s facility in Newark, N.J.
Automated workflow at indoor farming facilities will depend on how well facilities are able to integrate data-tracking and machine learning into their workflows. The first step toward that is figuring out what to track and monitoring accordingly.
5. Use data to reduce crop damage and labor costs
Better data analytics will mean better capabilities with far-reaching implications, including reduced crop damage, optimized labor costs, and higher yield. Those improvements stand to bring benefits to companies operating indoor farms, chiefly by reducing operating expenses and making day-to-day costs more manageable.
6. Accelerate payback for CAPEX
Increased profitability will in turn accelerate payback on initial capital expenditures for companies operating indoor facilities. Controlled indoor ag spaces, including vertical farms, which we looked at in our report, can require as much as $150 per square foot, according to the people we interviewed. Even large greenhouse environments can still cost about $100 per square foot. With these steep costs, ROI for indoor ag operations can often take five years or more – even with the ability to grow crops throughout the calendar year.
7. Use water more efficiently
Data will enable indoor farms to manage resources more effectively and with greater precision. With that will come savings and cost efficiencies that will double as environmental benefits, since facilities will be able to avoid wasting water. The net benefit to the planet across operations will be considerable.
8. Create new types of urban agriculture jobs
One of the most fascinating places to watch in indoor agriculture will be the new job descriptions with unique skillsets that are created as data and machine learning become more standardized. In our report, we looked at a handful of these evolving positions, such as plant operations, roboticists, and new agronomists, which will have increasingly vital roles to play on indoor farms.
9. Improve nutrition
Fresh, locally produced food will also offer consumers healthy eating options, and fewer nutrients lost due to long transit times will mean higher-quality products. Instead of breading plants to be durable in outdoor conditions, indoor farmers can focus on genetic traits for flavor, nutrient density, and other consumer-friendly attributes. Moreover, local operations could lead to greater consumer awareness and accessibility to production conditions, incentivizing accountability.
10. Spark new approaches to urban policy
As the benefits of local, indoor ag become more apparent, there will also be opportunities for cities and other local government institutions to play greater roles in how these projects are incentivized and regulated. From public education initiatives, to zoning, city planning, and taxes, there will be a wide array of variables in play that public policy can influence and adjust to improve the quality of life for residents.
To find out more about the arrival of digital intelligence in indoor farming and what it means for the future, download our full report.